Cometh the hour, cometh the Indian skipper. The country’s most prolific goal scorer, Sunil Chhetri, gave the Indian Super League perhaps its most memorable performance of the fourth season.
After scoring 10 goals in the group stages, Chhetri scored a hat-trick against Pune City in the second leg of their semifinal on Sunday after a stalemate in the first leg on Wednesday. After an uneventful 0-0 draw in Pune, Chhetri signaled his intent in the opening minutes with a header that missed by a few inches. Coach Albert Rocha then watched his team take the game to a hapless Pune City for the next hour. After scoring the second goal – a penalty – in the 65th minute, Bengaluru went pressing for a third. But Jonatan Lucca’s brilliant free kick in the 83rd minute meant that the tie was suddenly going down to the wire. If Pune somehow managed to score a second, the away goal rule would mean that Bengaluru would be dumped out of the ISL despite dominating a majority of the contest. One goal, one defender error, is all it would have taken. Yet, being the professional outfit that they are, Chhetri scored his best of the night in the dying minutes – a panenka kick that sealed the deal for his impressive team. 3-1 and that was that. Pune City, arguably the weakest team in the playoffs, bowed out after a season in which they outperformed their potential.
WINNER IN WAITING
And as expected, Bengaluru FC is now the first finalist of ISL-4. There were never any doubts about their place – given that they have dominated the group stages and now the playoffs unlike any other team in the short history of the Indian Super League. Irrespective of their simultaneous AFC Cup schedule, there’s a business-like, dominant air about the debutants, who await the winner of former champion Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa on Saturday at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in front of a home crowd in Bangalore.
John Gregory’s Chennaiyin FC, oddly, will be disappointed despite coming away from the first leg of their semifinal in Goa with a crucial away goal. According to many, Gregory’s fantastic counter-attacking outfit should have come away with two or three goals at the least, especially after a superbly dominating last half-hour of the tie. 1-1 is what they got, and Goa – so far the most attacking team of ISL-4 – will consider themselves fortunate that they fight to live another day (on Tuesday, in Chennai). The Spanish striker duo of Lanzarote and Coro managed to score just one goal between them this time at home – a performance that left Goa fighting for survival instead of blowing away their rivals, like they have been doing in their last four games. The team has been heavily dominant on the duo, but their defensive frailties were exposed relentlessly until Anirudh Thapa capitalized on a Gregory Nelson break to score through second-choice goalie Laxmikant Kattimani’s legs seven minutes after conceding. Goalie Naveen Kumar had been suspended for his schoolboy error in the virtual quarterfinal against Jamshedpur FC, handling the ball outside his box to be sent off – setting the stage for the out-of-favor Kattimani to try and earn his first clean sheet of the tournament. Kattimani, ironically, made just one error, the one that cost his team a goal, but worked well throughout to keep Goa on level terms. Kumar will probably be back in Chennai on Tuesday night, hoping that his strikers catch fire and keep things within their half.
When Goa find the rhythm, it doesn’t matter whether they are playing home or away. It’s not often Coro will go two games in a row without scoring either. If they even score one goal in the first half on Tuesday, it will be up to Chennaiyin to go for an outright win – which, despite being the most versatile and all-round team this season, will be a tough ask. Expect an “upset”: Goa to win on penalties after another 1-1 draw.
Prediction for final: Bengaluru FC vs FC Goa
Note: A true shock would be one of Chennaiyin or Goa going on to win the title. Bengaluru have one final match to win – anything less will be a major disappointment for them in a season where they have been head and shoulders above everyone else.
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